Americans have a great and exuberant tradition that touches our sense of belonging and our pride in coming together. No, I am not referring to Thanksgiving, that festival of gratitude, generosity, and welcome. I am referring to the equally great and exuberant tradition of trash-talking other people.
Supposedly we have reformed. Ethnic slurs that were once common have retreated to the dark corners of dive bars and the even darker corners of anti-social media. We live in a time when a whole new admonitory vocabulary has emerged to warn people away from anything remotely racist. “Cultural appropriation” is taboo—as must be the word “taboo” itself, a Tongan word appropriated into English by Capt. James Cook.
We worry about demeaning stereotypes, microaggressions, implicit bias, normativity, neo-colonialism, and the “othering” of others. Surely we are more enlightened than those vile, imperialistic, hate-filled, white, heteronormative people who… Oops.
Ethnic slurs haven’t disappeared. They have just slipped into a new register. Black lives matter, but “all lives matter?” Them’s fighting words. Attacking someone else, after all, is a classic way of demonstrating loyalty to one’s own group, claiming group superiority, and policing the edges.
Gyasi Ross, a Blackfeet (Native American) author (Huffington Post, Gawker, and Indian Country Today) attorney, “rapper, speaker and storyteller,” explained on MSNBC the other day, speaking of the Mayflower Pilgrims, “Instead of bringing stuffing and biscuits, those settlers brought genocide and violence.” Speaking of Thanksgiving, Ross adds, “That genocide and violence is still on the menu.”
If take this as an attempt to right the historical record, it is hopeless. The Pilgrims didn’t bring “genocide” to America. They barely brought themselves, with half of their company dying that first winter, in 1620-21.
For that matter, genocide was already here among native peoples, who frequently fought wars of extermination against rival tribes. The archaeological record testifies to such events, and Europeans had little to teach the native peoples they encountered anything about ambush, torture, and the death penalty.
But if Ross is simply attempting to show off his command of vituperative insult towards people of a tribe other than his own,
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